But What Will I Say?

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I can only speak for myself after years in pastoral ministry and countless hours of official training and real life experiences--when bad news comes, those title words still immediately race across my mind. Perhaps there are those who always know exactly what to say, and that I guess would be nice, but such confidence has never been mine in that first, flash moment when evil tidings arrive. It is then that you feel that quivering, cowardly feeling down deep inside that tells you that you really need to be of comfort but you just do not know what to say or do. Well, here is some real help that I deeply wish had been pressed upon me many years ago. 

Here is some real help that I deeply wish had been pressed upon me many years ago. The article “The Art of Presence” by David Brooks appeared several weeks ago in The New York Times. The sheer beauty of the piece is not only what is said, and I think you will find that part a gem, but it is written in such a way that most of us can recall its main points easily when we need them the most.    

One of the things that really strikes me is there is nothing new here at all!  It is all just plain good people sense! No theories, no fancy formulas or philosophical tricks to try to recollect. All we “common people” are given are six good, solid ways to genuinely help anyone who is suffering and in some kind of mental or emotional trauma. Situations beyond that, we need to leave to experts anyway. I have interwoven into the piece some particularly appropriate advice for ministering from a Christian and biblical standpoint:

Do be there. Most people don't need space as much as they need presence. Those in suffering really don't need talking as much as just your being there. Most of the time we under-estimate the value of human presence and feel we have to be chattering. For all of us trained to speak, maybe we would do our best work in these times if our words were few. Even a casual study of Job's friends would clearly teach us that lesson. It is in times of suffering that we really value presence. I recently heard a very good friend speak on his year and a half cancer battle. One of the four biggest things he learned was to suffer in community, not alone. For example, for the patient who can't speak, just knowing someone is there makes all the difference. For the person facing an extended illness, knowing that people will remain supportive, makes the current struggle just a little more psychologically manageable. This is not meant as a hint not to have spoken prayer with those suffering.  Make any prayers short, personal, meaningful, and uplifting.  I have never been turned down when I asked if I could pray with or for someone. Often that is the most meaningful part of the visit.  

Don't compare, ever. Every trauma is totally unique because all of us are unique. When suffering or in trauma, comparisons sting and come across as careless and belittling. No comforter wants to be that. The simple truth is I haven't, can't and won't sit in their seat, but I can help them sit in theirs now!

Do bring soup, etc. “The non-verbal expressions of love are as healing as great eloquence, even more so.”  One visitor silently saw that the one she visited was not comfortable in her chair, so on a return visit, she brought a chair pad.  Small things mean worlds when suffering!

Do not say “You'll get over it.” First, they may not! Second, there is no such thing as getting over it, for when it is passed, there will be a new normal and not the old familiar one. Whether it is grief or suffering of another kind, “there is no back to the old me!” The helper's job is to assist the sufferer in limping slowly back into life as they are able, when they are able.

Try to be a builder. In the arena of helpers there are the emergency room types and there are others who are the long-term care givers. Firefighters drop everything and arrive at the moment of crisis to put out the fire quickly. Builders are there for years and years putting things back together again, helping victims live out their lives in some kind of normalcy. Assess your gifts and interests and be there for someone. All healing takes time--a lot of it! So be there for the long haul if you possibly can.

Don't say, "It's all for the best" or try to make sense out of what has happened. None of us quite knows why things happen, so let's stop all the surface pretense and unfounded optimism. In plain terms, that is telling us not to play God, even if sometimes we are asked to! “Theology can surely ground our ultimate hopes, but it should not be used to explain or interpret daily events as though it were some detailed book of formulas.” Job as well as the tower of Siloam (Lk. 13:4) are good examples of tragedies whose origin and purpose were unknown. The suffering don't need "Mr./Ms. Quick & Ready Answer," they need "Mr./Ms. Deep & Sincere Empathy."  Read and use all the promises and assurances the Scriptures have to offer as there is opportunity. But just don't give in to the temptation to explain all the “whys” and “wherefores” of the current cause of trial and suffering.

What would you add to this list of suggestions?

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I love the idea of being present. I often tell people that a listening ear is most often far more valuable to someone in crisis than words. Job 2:11-13 says, "When Job's three friends ... heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathaize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, becuse they saw how great his suffering was." This was an appropriate response. Note: they were much less helpful once they started talking.

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Louis Tamminga

"But what will I say ?"

Some fine advice here. Thoughtful, empathetic presence goes such a long way. Loving gestures too!

But a helpful pastoral visit also needs more.

The sick and lonely will invariably struggle with burdensome questions. Both spiritual and material.

The visitor should not hesitate to inquire carefully and lovingly about the things of the heart. If the patient is not of a mind to reveal any, he/she will so indicate. But it may lead to a setting of listening to concerns the patient is willing, or eager even, to reveal. Without trying to give solutions, the visitor will listen, speak a word of encouragement and conclude the visit with voicing  these needs in prayer to God.